Wednesday, June 11, 2014

America's First 'Sea Serpent'


The first American sea serpent sighting took place off the coast of New England near Cape Ann, Massachusetts in 1639. The creature would eventually become known as “Gloucester’s Sea Serpent,” named after the harbor just north of Boston.

The harbor of Gloucester, Massachusetts is located just north of Boston on the lower part of Cape Ann which juts out into the Atlantic Ocean. Gloucester has always been a seafaring town. Its harbor is well protected from Atlantic storms, making it a destination for ships hauling cargo. In the 17th century fish abounded off the coast ready to caught by enterprising and brave men willing to go to the sea in boats. If any group of people should have known the sea and local inhabitants, it should have been the fishermen and sailors of Gloucester.

One of the earliest sightings of an animal that would haunt the coast of New England was in 1638. The monster was first reported in An account of two voyages to New-England : made during the years 1638, 1663 by John Josselyn, who wrote:

“They told me of a sea serpent, or snake, that lay quoiled up like a cable upon the rock at Cape Ann; a boat passing by with English on board, and two Indians, they would have shot the serpent, but the Indians dissuaded them, saying that if he were not killed outright, they would all be in danger of their lives.”

Three years later, Obadiah Turner reported a similar incident near Lynn, Massachusetts, where he allegedly saw a serpent as wide as a wine pipe and around 27 meters (90 ft) in length:

Some being on ye great beache gathering of calms and seaweed wch had been cast thereon by ye mightie storm did spy a most wonderful serpent a shorte way off from ye shore. He was big round in ye thickest part as a wine pipe; and they do affirm that he was fifteen fathoms [90 feet] or more in length. A most wonderful tale. But ye witnesses be credible, and it would be of no account to them to tell an untrue tale. Wee have likewise heard yt Cape Ann ye people have seene a monster like unto this, whch did there come out of ye land mch to ye terror of them yt did see him.


While sporadic sightings continued through the 17th and 18th centuries, the serpent had become a seasonal phenomenon by the early 1800s, much like today’s “lake monsters.”

General David Humphreys, a former member of George Washington's staff, traveled down to Gloucester to interview witnesses. According to the testimony he gathered, the creature's head, which it held above the water, was:

"much like the head of a turtle... and larger than the head on any dog. From its head there rose a prong or spear about twelve inches in height, and six inches in circumference at the bottom, and running to a small point."


In a compilation of sightings printed in the Boston Weekly Messenger it was further reported that the creature was sixty to seventy feet in length, that it was about as wide as a barrel, that it moved rapidly in a serpentine fashion, that it was able to double back upon itself instantaneously, that it was:

"full of joints and resemble[d] a string of buoys on a net, and that all attempts to kill or capture it, including shooting a musket at it from close range, failed."

In August of 1817 when two women claimed they had seen the creature swimming into the harbor. The same sea-serpent was seen at almost the same time by the Captain of a coasting vessel. A few days later Mrs. Amous Story said she saw what appeared to be a tree trunk washed up on the rocks of Ten Pound Island which lies in the harbor. As she watched it through a telescope, it moved and when she looked again, it was gone. William Row reported seeing a creature saying "its head was as broad as a horse or more so, but not quite as long." The same day Amos Story also saw the creature:

It was between the hours of twelve and one o'clock when I first saw him, and he continued in sight for an hour and a half. I was setting on the shore, and was about twenty rods from him when he was the nearest to me. His head appeared shaped mach like that of the sea turtle, and he carried his head from ten to twelve inches above the surface of the water. His head at that distance appeared larger than the head of any dog I ever saw. From the back of his head to the next part of him that was visible, I should judge to be three or four feet. He moved very rapidly through the water, I should say a mile or two or, at most, in three minutes. I saw no bunches on his back. On this day, I did not see more than ten or twelve feet of his body.


Two days later on August 12th Shipmaster Solomon Allen III saw the Gloucester sea serpent:

His head formed something like the head of a rattlesnake, but nearly as large as the head of horse. When he moved on the surface of the water his motion was slow, at times playing in circles, and sometimes moving straight forward.

The creature was even shot at two days later by ship's carpenter Matthew Gaffney from a boat:

I had a good gun, and took good aim. I aimed at his head, and I think I must of hit him. He turned toward us immediately after I had fired, and I thought he was coming at us; but he sunk down and went directly under our boat, and made his appearance at about one hundred yards from where he sunk...

Gaffney also mentions the motion of the creature through the water was "vertical, like a caterpillar."

There were eighteen separate sightings that same year. Observers noted that the creature swam with a vertical motion and his body appeared as "humps" behind him. This report was from Cheever Felch aboard the United States schooner Science:

His colour is dark brown with white under his throat. His size we could not accurately ascertain, but his head is about three feet in circumference, flat and much smaller than his body. We did not see his tail; but from the end of the head to the farthest protuberance was not far from one hundred feet. I speak with a degree of certainty, behing much accustomed to measure and estimate distances and length. I counted fourteen bunches on his back, the first one say ten or twelve feet from this head, and the others about seven feet apart. They decreased in size towards the tail. These bunches were sometimes counted with and sometimes without a glass. Mr. Malborne counted thirteen, Mr. Blake thirteen and fourteen, and the boatman the same number...His motion was partly vertical and partly horizontal, like that of fresh water snakes. I have been much acquainted with snakes in our interior waters. His motion was the same.


In many of the Gloucester reports, though, observers first felt they were viewing something quite normal, but then changed their minds when they got closer. For example, this report by John Brown, published in 1817:

...I discovered something about three or four miles distant, about two points on the weather bow, which appeared as a mast, as it rose and sunk in a perpendicular manner, once in about eight or ten minutes. I kept the vessel directly for it, and after look at it with my glass, I observed to my mate that i was a wreck, as I could see timbers &c.. sticking up, but as we approached nearer, I found what appeared like timbers to be a number of porpoises and black fish playing and jumping around a large Sea-Serpent, which we had supposed to be the mast.

So what was the Sea Serpent of Gloucester? Most such reports are attributed to simple misidentification. Dolphins leaping in single file might look like a series of humps. The sixteen-foot-long elephant seal might look like a sea monster to someone unfamiliar with the giant seal.

In 1817, the Linnean Society of New England performed one of the first scientific investigations of a sea serpent, providing a list of carefully chosen questions to eyewitnesses in an attempt to discover the creature’s true nature. They concluded that a dead snake which had been found on the coast of Cape Ann was the creature’s progeny and named it Scioliophis atlanticus because of the scalloped shape of its back. Rather than a new species, the snake turned out to be a common black snake with a deformation.


However, the society's pamphlet met with ridicule, and inspired the production of numerous fake accounts of the creature. The account was particularly ridiculed in the South, where it inspired the Charleston playwright, William Crafts, to compose a play titled The Sea Serpent; or, Gloucester Hoax: a Dramatic jeu d'esprit in Three Acts. The premise of this play was that the serpent was a hoax, designed to promote the reputation of the town of Gloucester.

Others, however, took the reports of the creature seriously. Jacob Bigelow composed an essay about the creature for Benjamin Silliman's prestigious The American Journal of Science and Arts Interest in sea serpents reached an even greater pitch in America when there were mass sightings of a serpent off the coast of Nahant in 1819.

The most recent reported sighting of the serpent (or one of its offspring) took place in 1962, off the coast of Marshfield, Massachusetts. Sadly, author of The Great New England Sea Serpent: An Account of Unknown Creatures Sighted by Many Respectable Persons Between 1638 and the Present Day J.P. O’Neill, has speculated that centuries of over-fishing off of New England may well have caused the creatures to migrate away from the Gloucester bay area in search of more fertile feeding grounds. Others believe that the change from sail to diesel may have forced the serpents to steering clear of common fishing regions in order to avoid the noise and pollution of modern fishing vessels.

Sources:
mythicalcreaturesguide.com
unmuseum.org
Michel Meurger and Claude Gagnon, Lake Monster Traditions: A Cross-Cultural Analysis, Fortean Tomes, London, 1988
americanmonsters.com
An account of two voyages to New-England : made during the years 1638, 1663
unknownexplorers.com
The Great New England Sea Serpent: An Account of Unknown Creatures Sighted by Many Respectable Persons Between 1638 and the Present Day
salon.com - August 10, 2013


Gloucester's Sea Serpent (MA)

The Serpent Came to Gloucester

Hydra and Kraken, Or, the Lore and Lure of Lake-Monsters and Sea-Serpents


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